So I was taking a walk the other day and I read that Kung Fu Kenny got himself a Pulitzer…
Rap artist Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his fourth studio album, DAMN., making Lamar the first artist that’s not a jazz or classical musician to win the distinction. Take a moment and peruse the list of past Pulitzer Prize winners for Music for recognizable names. Spoiler alert: unless you’re an aficionado, there are none. Not taking credit away from any of those past winners since jazz is a pure American art form and classical music almost always delivers – but for a mainstream artist to win the prize that routinely goes to more technical musicians is a monumental happening. It elevates Lamar into a stratosphere where he is nearly peer-less and it further solidifies the rap genre as a pure American art form itself.
DAMN. was released on April 14, 2017 to critical acclaim across the board for Lamar’s progression as a storyteller and artist. It won the Grammy for Best Rap Album – but losing out to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic for Album of the Year – and was named Billboard‘s Year-End number one album of 2017. The album’s tracks are titled after conflicting themes that weighed on Lamar in the wake of climbing to the top of his industry, becoming a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the arduous cost of his fame. With “Damn.” he turns his examinations inward at how certain blessings become burdens and how he’s able to revert them back and forth. Lamar expresses, as many of the best rappers do, the contradictions he faces in his life of rising stardom and increased scrutiny. He tackles faith, race, politics, his commercial image, and how they all factor in his trajectory not only as an African-American artist, but as a human. Only no one really shines a light on these complexities like Lamar. You can tell he’s mindful of their effect on his world views while at the same time riding their waves as far as they can go. He maneuvers his self-awareness of his weaknesses into musical strengths. “DNA” comes at you in a breakneck velocity with this technique: “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA/I got off, I got troublesome, heart inside my DNA.” He claims “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me” in “HUMBLE,” one of Obama’s personal favorites, and inserts “Pray for me” as he shifts tones in “XXX” featuring U2**. He voices his own belief in one vignette that no one is truly looking out for him in his battles for social justice in America while hoping in another that somebody somewhere could.
** Bono’s vocals in “XXX” can be heard in U2’s new album, Songs of Experience on the track, “American Soul,” featuring vocals from Lamar.
Not only with conflicting themes, but Lamar switches sonic tones and his lyrical pacing throughout the course of the album. “DNA,” ELEMENT,” “FEEL,” and “HUMBLE” all fire with ferocious speed and precision while “BLOOD” and “PRIDE” have Lamar brooding slower and mellower through his reflections. That makes DAMN. jazz: it’s not defined as one wholesome entity, it’s made up of different subgenres, a polylithic clash of personalities that make up Lamar. It’s avante-garde and classic rap and linear storytelling (given the order in which you listen to the album.) It’s not just one composer staying solely devoted to traditional musical notes, like classical; it’s a plethora of producers implementing each of their unique signatures and experimentations alongside Lamar’s digressions. That’s a jazz ensemble using music and rhythm to communicate what they all have to say, which is a whole fucking lot; that combined with Lamar’s lyrical and storytelling prowess, the album transcends to literal Pulitzer Prize-winning levels.
Give DAMN. another listen, or a first listen, then again backwards, to appreciate just how big a moment this is for not only for rap, but for culture as a whole as it shifts toward new, exciting ideas about what is considered prestigious.
So I was taking a walk the other day…